Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’: Brilliant, Shattering, and Back on Broadway
Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ returns to Broadway in a superb National Theatre production, its themes of gay sexuality, AIDS, and resistance as powerful now as in the ’90s.
Leaving the new Broadway production of Angels in America a week ago, in fact in the eight days since, there has been a familiar, very old and deep-veined, ready-to-be-reignited anger inside this reviewer: the anger at so many thousands of gay lives lost back in the 1980s, when not only HIV and AIDS cut their untreatable, deadly swathe through our community, but also anger that awful assault was compounded by so much ignorance and bigotry.
There was so much human loss, so much lost potential, and so much cruelty and stupidity.
Tony Kushner’s epic play, now revived—handsomely, majestically, pretty near perfectly—on Broadway in a transfer of London’s National Theatre production, directed brilliantly by Marianne Elliott, is not calculated to inspire the kind of anger that the more lean and polemical The Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer, does.
But the anger re-ignites: the emotional and political weave of Kushner’s writing and characters is immaculately provocative of both head and heart. He burrows relentlessly into his characters, and we burrow relentlessly with him, and the actors—boy, they burrow hardest and most successfully of all.
Why does Angels feel so timely, and why does this production ring so true? People are no longer dying as they once were. Six years after the timeframe of the plays end, and four years after its second part Perestroika was completed, the first combination therapies were available. People now live with HIV and AIDS as treatable conditions. Now the debate is over the rights and wrong of PrEP.
But Angels, completed in full in 1992 and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and seven Tonys (with surely more to come this year), feels close by, still; perhaps because few playwrights have come as close as Kushner did to putting the grand tragedy of AIDS on an appositely grand canvas, populated by people who are recognizable and also fantastical.
The subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia On National Themes” may sound parodic, but it is a declaration of steely, and astonishingly achieved intent.
For all its ranginess, this production of Angels is a masterclass in storytelling clarity and profundity. That’s the first amazing thing, really: it is, in its two parts Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, around seven and a half hours long. The story is, as a later wonderful joke intimates, like the craziest jig along its own half-dream, half-real Yellow Brick Road.
You can split the two parts up over two nights, or watch the whole thing in one day. There are three acts within Millennium Approaches, and five acts plus epilogue within Perestroika. Part One spans the last three months of 1985; Part Two ends in January 1990. (You know the scale of it if you saw the acclaimed and award-winning HBO mini-series, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, in 2003.)
What a kaleidoscope of the personal and political it is, and a précis risks making it sound pedestrian. Andrew Garfield plays Prior Walter, the young gay man with AIDS, facing the prospect of death with cutting zingers and at a crossroads in his relationship with boyfriend Louis (James McCardle), who is—even on a good day—a riot of New York Jewish neuroses.
He wears them as a nervy badge of honor, and McCardle is brilliant at marshaling the torrent of thoughts and words, and sometimes giving up in the middle of expressing them, just as someone like Louis does. If he’s understandably fluffing lines or simply forgetting them, you would never know.
Prior meanwhile stalks the stage in a long coat and Gloria Swanson turban, a picaresque downtown diva in long black coat, scowling, bitching, and refusing to die peaceably, and telling as many hard truths to anyone passing as possible. But the world of the imagination and the spirit world prove inescapable invaders: he is visited by antecedent Prior Walters, one delightfully fey (Nathan Lane), the other stonily butch and stupid (Lee Pace). Every time a ghost or imagined tableau presents itself, Garfield issues wonderful, campy whoops of terror and surprise. The physicality of his performance is as brave as it is impressive.
There is a betrayal about to happen, not just romantic but also one borne out of fear, when Lou meets Joe Pitt (Lee Pace), a Mormon who is himself getting entangled in the nefarious Washington power games of Donald Trump’s good friend Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), while his marriage to his wife Harper (Denise Gough) is in freefall. Not only is Joe in the closet, Harper's failing mental health is also affecting their relationship.
Kushner powers Cohn’s journey, with two nemeses, one fabulous and earth-bound in his nurse Belize (the excellent, poised Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who will not take his racism and ugly self-hatred for one second; and one ghostly in the form of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg (a sinister and smiling Susan Brown), like Cohn a real-life figure and one who goads and needles the man who stage-managed her 1950s trial as a hallucination at the end of his hospital bed.
In the beginning of the play, this warren of plots is serviced by an ingenious set of revolving rooms and darkened corridors designed by Ian MacNeil. Pace plays Joe with a dogged self-righteousness, while Gough makes what is perhaps the play’s toughest role as the unstable Harper—imagining in her dreams and then finally really meeting Prior; going on a snowbound personal odyssey to the Arctic, care of devious imaginary travel agent Mr. Lies (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)—powerfully tangible and believable.
Her madness may capsize her, or it may make her, and Gough is a stunningly adept pilot through Harper’s many moods. (MacNeil’s design and Paule Constable’s lighting helps the play exist plausibly in the realms of both real and imagined, and expects you to follow it accordingly.)
Lane is a brilliant, fearsome, spitting, vicious ball of energy as Cohn, whose scenes you come to both dread and delight in, whether it’s insisting that he has not got AIDS, or that he is not gay—because gays are losers, and he is no loser—to his doctor (Susan Brown). Most of the actors double and triple up as other characters, crossing genders too, in both parts of the play. It’s particularly fun to see Gough, so in pain and lost as Harper, also play Cohn’s compadre Martin Heller, in swaggering pinstripe.
Cohn is both a self- and other-hating, blood-red river of vileness, and also a repository of unexpected pathos, which shows Kushner’s generosity, even if his subject little deserves it (especially in the moral ugliness Cohn has presently helped bequeath the country).
The drama and humor is high and low: we go from Prior making fun of Lewis’ many inadequacies, or Belize finishing Cohn off with a well-earned smackdown, to discussions of political philosophy.
The nature of freedom, religious belief and cultural difference are threaded through delicious scenes such as a furious and amped-up Prior going to confront Joe about sleeping with Lou. Or the moment of Joe coming out of the closet, Pace proudly ripping off all his clothes (and this, just after he came out in real life, too).
You may well be waiting for the Angel. Amanda Lawrence plays her as a spectacularly raddled and offended-looking creature. She looks like an angel who has been left with the hungry pigeons on the kerb, with matted wings, operated by black-clad puppeteers. Prior must wrestle her—his triumph gets its own round of applause—and also take instruction, because at its heart Angels remains a play of multiple quests.
Each character, so precisely played, is worthy of investment. This is seven and a half hours of luxurious dramatic immersion, and in no way arid or plodding. You will laugh a lot, which may surprise you. But this play is as streaked with humor as it is intellectual and emotional weightiness.
Hannah (Susan Brown), Joe’s mother, comes from Salt Lake City to New York City. Elliott's skill as a director is evident in what is really a bridging scene where Hannah is lost and asking directions from a homeless woman, and devoting as much care to it as the Angel's entry or Harper's imaginary Arctic trip, or the moving scene in which Hannah connects with, and becomes Prior’s unlikely ally and protector. She looks careworn, but Brown gives Hannah a both iron-hard and wryly mischievous certainty.
Prior's quest is to visit heaven, and make sense of what looks like a huge technical control room, filled with silent angels with TV screens showing the human world in various stages of destruction. What is this thing called life, he must ask, and how precious is it?
Lou’s quest is for bravery, for confronting what a relationship means and what he must to do to occupy one healthily and honestly. And Cohn’s journey is a stunning one of offense and defense; a whirl of death, denial, and a desire for atonement that turns out to be only partial.
Harper must ask herself what part of her life is salvageable, after a failed marriage to a closet case and a mental health problem; Joe himself must ask what he is prepared to admit about himself, and what place that can have. He is the one served least well in the trajectory of the play’s composition. His ending is lost, he is lost (it feels), while the others—if not found—have completed their quests with some inner peace or resolve found.
No review can do justice to Kushner’s beautiful use of language, and the play’s jostling canvas; the mix of profane, mundane, wisecracks, and dense philosophy which—as it grows more layered—acquires a more open stage to be evoked on. Angels is both literal and supernatural, we see blood spilled and tears shed and we also see images and metaphors unfurl. For all their characters colorfully escape, the answer for Prior and Harper – just as with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – comes in living with some kind of reality and clarity. There's no place like home, no matter how screwed up it is.
This is a play but also an experience of theater, where it is up to you—an audience member—to work to unpeel the characters presented to you; even the haranguing monologue of Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (Susan Brown), the fearsome "world's oldest living Bolshevik" who ushers you back for Perestroika. Prelapsarianov asks us if the world should move forward or not—that is the question, big and small, that shadows the whole play—while balefully observing how unlikely that is in the "sour little age" America finds itself in.
Angels isn't so sure about that, and one wonders if that optimism will also find its way into Kushner's forthcoming play about Cohn friend and acolyte Donald Trump, the existence of which Kushner revealed to The Daily Beast last July.
The day and night this reviewer saw Angels, the cast returned for three standing ovations. All were merited. Another three wouldn’t have been amiss. Its urgency and power is undimmed. What is asks, accuses, and indicts has not dimmed. Its wit and invective remain burning and bright.
This is theater at its most whole and embracing: You are left with much to think about, personally, culturally and philosophically (thank you Louis, babbling till the end). And of course, you may be left as angry as this reviewer was, but it’s truly the best kind of anger. As Kushner intended it, it feels like fuel.
Angels in America is at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, NYC. Book here.